How Did the Social Security Disability Program Begin?

people lined up forming disability symbol

Nearly 63 years ago, the Social Security Disability Insurance program was signed into law. But how did we get there? In honor of the upcoming anniversary of the program’s passage, we take a look at how it all began.

The Creation of Social Security 

U.S. social workers and social scientists advocated for insurance that would protect Americans from illness, unemployment, old age and work-related injuries. European countries had already established programs protecting its citizens, and movements sprang up in the United States for this cause.

In response to growing pressure, in 1934, President Roosevelt created the Committee on Economic Security. Chaired by his Secretary of State, Frances Perkins, the committee created a report outlining legislation for a social security program.

Ironically, the report mentioned how illness is a major factor in economic instability, but no clear recommendations were made for disability legislation at that time.

The findings in the report established the basis of the Social Security Act, which was signed by Roosevelt in 1935. The Social Security Board (now known as the Social Security Administration) was established the same year.

It wasn’t until more than two decades later when the Social Security Disability Insurance program was established in 1956. Let’s take a closer look at some of the highlights on the road to creating the federal disability program.

Making the Case for the Impact of Disability & Economic Challenges

Leading up to its establishment, many key figures fought to pass disability benefits.

Economist Edwin E. Witte led the Social Security Administration’s Advisory Council. In a 1938 report, he argued that benefits should be available for Americans who become permanently disabled before 65, and that the benefits should also be available for their dependents.

In an Advisory Council report in 1948, council members stated that up to 2 million Americans suffer from disabilities on any given day, which made it impossible for them to work and provide for their families. They reasoned that the economic challenges of disabilities were far greater than those of old age.

Aid to the Permanently and Totally Disabled

Arthur Altemeyer, the leader of the SSA for nearly twenty years, made various proposals about the disability program during his time as a leader. In 1949, he proposed a federal disability insurance program to the House Ways and Means Committee. A variation of the legislation passed as the Aid to the Permanently and Totally Disabled, and only provided federal grants to states to oversee the program.

The Disability Freeze – Protecting Disabled Workers’ Social Security Benefits

In 1952, Altmeyer created the idea of the disability freeze, which protected workers’  who were forced to leave the workforce due to a disability. Under the freeze, disabled workers could still collect social security benefits at the normal retirement age.

In 1954, the freeze was supported by the Eisenhower administration and passed. The freeze defined disability as “the inability to engage in substantial gainful activity due to a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that could be expected to result in death or to be of long-continued and indefinite duration.”

To be eligible, an applicant must have a solid work history and his or her condition must have lasted for at least six months. In order to determine eligibility, it was decided that individual states would make the decisions, with agreements with the Secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

The Disability Determination Process

1n 1955, the Medical Advisory Committee (MAC) was created, which included medical physicians and representatives from various organizations, such as labor unions and hospital administration. The MAC was responsible for creating standards for evaluating disability and worked in conjunction with state agencies and the SSA.

The group established changes to the disability determination process. It stated that:

  • An applicant’s physical or mental condition must prohibit applicants from performing substantial gainful activity
  • The condition must be expected to last for a year or is terminal
  • The impairment must meet or equal one or more of the listings in the SSA’s Listing of impairments
  • If a serious impairment does not equal the listings, an applicant’s age, education and work history are evaluated
  • If a person can no longer complete work he or she did in the past or complete new work, they are considered disabled

Passage of Social Security Disability Insurance

In 1955 The House of Representatives created legislation that would establish disability insurance for disabled workers who were 50-years-old and older. Debates between the House, Senate and organizations such as the American Medical Association became heated.

After a close vote, President Eisenhower signed the Social Security Disability Insurance bill into law on August 1, 1956. The disability program provided cash benefits to applicants between the ages of 50-64. Children who were disabled before the age of 18 of retired or deceased workers were also eligible.

After decades of fighting for the rights of the disabled, the passage of the Social Security Disability program was a victory for advocates and the disabled.

Impact of the Program

In the 63 years after its passage, the SSD program has undergone various expansions and changes. The program has helped millions of disabled Americans and dependents during the most difficult times in their lives.

At a Glance: 

We Can Help

If you are disabled and unable to work, call Disability Attorneys of Michigan for a free confidential consultation. We’ll let you know if we can help you get a monthly check and help you determine if any money or assets you receive could impact your eligibility for disability benefits.

Disability Attorneys of Michigan works hard every day helping the disabled of Michigan seek the Social Security Disability Benefits they need. If you are unable to work due to a physical, mental, or cognitive impairment, call Disability Attorneys of Michigan now for a free consultation at 800-701- 5524.

Let Michigan’s experienced Social Security Disability law firm help you get the benefits you deserve.

Disability Attorneys of Michigan, Compassionate Excellence.

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I will never forget you and the hard work you did to secure my Social Security Disability benefits. Thank you!

- Christine C.